THE OVEREXTENDED PHENOTYPE: PETER WATTS INTERVIEW
At the sharp edge of Darwinism, there’s no real difference between a flu virus and a computer virus… with human consciousness somewhere in the middle of the two. It’s all just recombinant information, contagious enough to reproduce and robust enough to see off predators. And that’s what marine biologist and SF novelist Peter Watts gives us, a hybrid world of tentacular horrors that tickle the neocortex.
In Watts’ world, our computers are made of head cheese — artificial wetware with its own genetic agenda; the internet has devolved into a seething unconscious full of self-generating lifeforms learning to mimic humanity because why not?; while alien colonies mimic humanity because… oh god why?; and humanity mimics every inhuman monster it can think of to survive: gene engineered zombie executives, space vampires, and abuse victims chop-shopped into creature from the black lagoon — because they’re the only ones who can take the pressure.
Not for Watts the celestial dataspheres of cyberpunk. This is the unrelentingly material world of biological process, the gloopy depths of neurogunk, where the viscera of human relationships are pared down to something unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality. Which may not be enough when nature has second thoughts about the value of consciousness or DNA itself.
Watts has known since the age of six that he was going to be a writer and, with the reissue of the Rifters Trilogy and the recently released Blindsight, he’s emerged as the man to beat. Charles Stross calls Blindsight “a tour de force that’ll make your skin crawl”; Jeremy Lassen (of Night Shade Books) describes it as “a phenomenal exploration of consciousness, biological theory, empathy and emotion… ambitious in scope, successful in execution, and audacious in implementation”; while Karl Schroeder says it’s “a shocking and mesmerizing performance of provocative and often alarming ideas.”
This is the dark side we encounter in Alien and Terminator — a thrilling, terrifying and unflinching journey to the end of night that brings us ultimately to a point of true hope, a place where ingenuity and courage confront the monster outside and inside of ourselves, and the urgency of life itself leads us to prevail.
h+: From a marine biologist, you might expect a finger-wagging warning, but instead it’s more like you’re gleefully excited. End of the World, Ma!
PETER WATTS: You’re perhaps to first to remark upon me being "gleeful" (although interestingly, others have assumed I’m some kind of snuff fetishist based on my depictions of sexual torture). But what excites me is life fighting back —the possibility of uprising: an environment that pushes back against the self-righteous cancer that’s been shitting on it since the industrial revolution; sheep pushed past some elastic breakpoint, sinking their teeth into the throats of their oppressors.
h+: How much does the world in your books come from your own life?
PW: Pretty much all the gut-level underwater ambience was informed by my own diving experience. There are times when you’re about 60-80 feet down and the whole ocean just suddenly goes dark around you. The first thing your brainstem thinks is that some big fucking predator has just blocked out the sun, and the moment you roll over you’re going to see the hemstitched zigzag grin of a transient killer whale opening up to bite you in half.
We baselines may regard them as dysfunctional because we don’t live in their civilization, but they do just fine in the late-21st century
I set Starfish at a hydrothermal vent because I’d been having dreams about those places ever since they were discovered in the seventies. I put armor-eyed Lenie Clarke down there because I was trying to figure out a girlfriend of mine before she offed herself, basically. It was a simulation model iterating around romance with the self-destructive. And those two elements came together to form a major thematic subtext of the whole trilogy, which is: civilization is built on the backs of its outcasts.
h+: So the traumatized by nature and nurture are the best men and women for the job of handling the future — which sounds like a lot of scientists, not to mention science fiction fans. Honest observation or shameless pandering?
PW: Spend enough time in academia and you see this time and again. The well-adjusted overachiever exists, but she’s a rare bird; most of the people who warrant the giant grants are eccentric at best and completely fucked in the head at worst. These are the people who cure the diseases, and invent the microwave ovens — and you probably wouldn’t be caught dead inviting any of them to your New Years’ parties. Starfish is kind of an in-your-face metaphor for that. Those people are fucked up in (and by) the social environment that shaped them, which just happens to have pre-adapted them for the completely different environment that they’re now in a position to inhabit. I just cranked up the dysfunction to eleven, and waited to see what would happen.
But Blindsight doesn’t posit a crew of rejects and outcasts; they’re an A-Team at the top of their respective fields. We baselines may regard them as dysfunctional because we don’t live in their civilization, but they do just fine in the late-21st Century circles they move in. They do a lot better than we would. From a purely pragmatic perspective, I chose them to illustrate the theme; each character illustrates an aspect of consciousness relevant to the overall argument. But again, why regard them as evolutionary blind alleys? These folks are supremely adapted to their habitat; to regard them as blind alleys because they wouldn’t be the life of the party in 2009 is a bit like describing a fish as ill-adapted because it can’t breath air.
h+: You seem to be asking, in Blindsight, if consciousness itself is a blind alley, and the enemy of humanity, if not life itself. Is it?
PW: If you define us as the little homunculi behind the eyes that says I am, then no: consciousness is not the enemy of humanity because consciousness is humanity. But then again, no tapeworm is going to argue that it is a threat to the body it inhabits, and should therefore be exterminated. Blindsight didn’t start out as a radical stand on the maladaptiveness of consciousness. I’d just spent the better part of a decade musing over what consciousness might be good for, and I kept coming up blank. Also, the more I looked at it, the more consciousness seemed to cost: it’s an energy hog metabolically, and it’s slow as constipation. Finally I threw in the towel. Imagine my surprise when papers started coming out explicitly concluding that consciousness is just a side effect of the way the brain works, with no adaptive value whatsoever. Now the idea has grown so mainstream that last September’s Discover magazine actually mentioned a "small but growing" group who speak out against the mainstream paradigm that we’re all just zombies.
h+: Since publication, are there any augments that have become more likely? Are there any you particularly fancy… or fear?
PW: The head cheeses are pretty much here already; we’ve had neuron cultures running models and machinery for a few years now, and they’re about to start running commercial power grids as well. But perhaps the development that troubles me most is from my Rifters books. Absolution is a drug you could take that would shut down such responses as guilt, remorse, and horror — essential for those charged with doing terrible things for the greater good. And now, here in the real world, we have drugs for post-traumatic stress disorder — basically they sever the memory of a horrific event from the emotional response associated with it — and so far as it goes, I suppose that’s a good thing. But we all know it’s only a matter of time before Blackwater doses its mercs up with this stuff before sending them outside the green zone, so they can gun down civilians with a clear conscience. And that scares me.